My daughters, 5 and 8 years old, bravely approached the National Park Service ranger behind a desk in the Colorado National Monument visitor’s center. He took off his hat, set it on the counter next to him, and asked to see their completed Junior Ranger activity booklets, which they each proudly held by their side.

child speaking to park ranger

The author’s eldest daughter answers the questions of a ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in order to earn her Junior Ranger badge. Photo © Joshua Berman.

This was our first time participating in the Junior Ranger program, an activity-based program in nearly all national parks, aimed primarily at kids ages 5 to 13. We were in the middle of a family road trip through Colorado, during which we used most of the state’s National Parks and Monuments as dots to connect with our big white minivan.

The ranger at the gate to Colorado National Monument, just south of Fruita near the Utah border, had handed us the empty booklets when we arrived the day before. We’d been working hard on them since—checking off wildlife and plant species the girls had spotted around our campsite, answering quiz questions about geography and campground etiquette, etc.

The booklets, which are specific to hundreds of parks and monuments and organized for different children of all age groups, are fashioned like scavenger hunts. Personally, I love that beyond being educational, they encourage creative expression with sections requiring the reader to go to certain vista points and draw.

three children at a park ranger's desk

Three daughters, three badges—submitting their Junior Ranger booklets at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado. Photo © Joshua Berman.

My girls had taken these assignments particularly seriously, and held their breath as the ranger thumbed through the pages. Finally, he looked up approvingly and said, “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”

“As Junior Rangers,” he began. “As junior rangers,” they repeated, beginning the oath:

“I promise to protect Colorado National Monument, and all the rocks, and the plants, and animals, and chipmunks, and the cactuseses.”

They giggled as he continued: “And after I leave, I will learn about, and protect the natural world, and all the national parks, and I’ll stay safe, and I’ll drink lots of water, and I’ll pick up litter, unless it’s gross.” More laughter. “High fives! Nice job, girls!”

The visitor center broke into applause as they accepted their badges, smiling ear to ear.

That summer, my girls proceeded to earn even more badges: in Mesa Verde National Park, where they identified local animal species and visited archaeological sites; in Grand Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where they had to visit a lookout and draw the landscape; and at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where we bought them green, wide-brimmed ranger hats on which to pin their growing collection of badges.

smiling child wearing a junior ranger hat

Joshua’s daughter proudly shows off her Junior Ranger badges at Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo © Joshua Berman.

For me, nothing exemplifies the idea of passing the stewardship of our public lands from one generation to the next than the Junior Ranger program. The gravity of this sank in for me that morning at Colorado National Monument.

After the ranger presented my girls with their very first badges and certificates, he put his classic flat-brimmed hat back on and asked them one last question: “Who does Colorado National Monument belong to?”

“To all of us,” answered my 8-year-old, the attentive student.

“That’s right,” he said. “It belongs to all of us. So we have to take good care of it.”